The Dark Half (1993)

JULY 21, 2010


I distinctly remember my mom coming home one night and telling me she had rented a horror movie for me. "What one?" is what I probably said, as I've never been a master of knowing whether to use "which" or "what". But instead of just saying the title, which might have meant something, she simply said "The sparrows are flying again!" (which/what, nowadays, I would probably assume to be the title of a giallo). Apparently, she thought I had read The Dark Half, and thus would understand the reference and be excited for the movie. I don't remember anything else about the experience; it's very likely I fell asleep watching it and never bothered to finish it.

At any rate, it's certainly not one of King's young-appealing stories. Maximum Overdrive, IT, Pet Sematary, etc... these all could and DID appeal to me as a young'n, due to having kids in them or being at least easy enough to follow in terms of its themes. But The Dark Half is a little more weighty than those others, dealing with identity crisis and possible schizophrenia. And no kids.

It's also possibly not a book that lends itself to a cinematic adaptation (its among the ones I haven't read; I'm at about 50/50 with his entire output). From what I understand it was a faithful adaptation, with only minor changes (in the book he blows someone up, he kills him up close in personal in the movie), so I have little reason to doubt my suspicion. For starters, there is never any question that Thad is innocent of the murders Stark is committing, due to the fact that we see him at home in Maine while Stark is killing folks in New York. The "not great, but I remember it being better than this" Secret Window (which also had Timothy Hutton), at least had the good sense to keep everything localized.

And it's really a two character story (Thad and Stark), and thus we don't have anyone else to really be concerned about. Most characters are only in it long enough to get killed; the two exceptions being Thad's wife, who mostly just stands around looking concerned, and Alan Pangborn, who I know lives long enough to turn into Ed Harris and fight the Devil. I would guess most of the book was made up of the interior monologue of the two characters (and, knowing King, probably some excerpts from their books). So the movie, being faithful and all, is very repetitive - Stark kills someone, Pangborn tells Thad about it, Thad explains that its Stark, and then back to Stark killing again. But without any of that deep thought process that gave the book its appeal.

That's not to say it's a BAD movie, it's just lacking a hook. Hutton is terrific in the dual role, but the primitive effects of the day (the one split screen shot of the two is atrocious) keeps them from really interacting. You look at what they could accomplish even a few years later with Multiplicity, and this movie ironically becomes a candidate for being remade with decent effects. And that's why the climax of the movie is mostly about them having a write-off, at least until a bunch of horrid looking animated sparrows (HD does not do this movie any favors) swarm the house and pick Stark to death (AWESOME effect by the way).

As most know, the film was adapted and directed by George A. Romero, and it would prove to be his last film for many years, as he spent almost a decade after its production (it came out in 1993 but it was finished in 1991) trying and failing to get other projects off the ground, before finally shooting the very low budget Bruiser in 2000. It would also be his final Pittsburgh shoot, which is a bummer as he is forced to try (very unsuccessfully, I hate to say) to pass it off as Maine. Again with the irony, I almost wonder if he could have made a more personal, interesting version of this story now, as he is almost forced into doing zombie movies because he can't get funding for anything else. Like Thad, he probably wants to kill off his most popular creation and express himself more freely. But at the time, he wasn't having much trouble getting films made - Dark Half was his 3rd film post Day of the Dead (which was released 5 years prior to Dark Half's production), and he was also writing a lot: Creepshow 2, the Night remake, etc. I think he could have brought a little more personality to the film had he waited a bit longer.

Then again, this is one of King's more autobiographical tales. A struggling writer who suffers from a problem that mirrors one in King's own life pretty much describes half of his protagonists, it seems. Stark is, of course, very much based on Richard Bachman, and some things (like his mock burial) are taken from what King did to Bachman for real. Later books would have characters being hit by cars (in fact he did this at least twice), and ultimately he'd put himself as a character in the "Dark Tower" books. Few authors have ever taken the "Write what you know" approach so literally. Thus, Romero may have felt obligated to stick to what King wrote rather than inject too much of his own neuroses and fears into the movie.

At any rate, it's a decent enough watch, and the performances are first rate across the board. But I think a King/Romero collaboration should be something really special, and thus shouldn't be so by the numbers.

Oh and the sparrows shouldn't be finches.

What say you?

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. Wow. I just watched this a few days ago. I saw this movie in the theater the weekend it came out. I was 14 or 15, and the only person in the theater. I loved the movie and I loved the book, one of my favorite King novels. I haven't read the book in ages, but the movie certainly didn't hold up. I found it dull and lackluster with some bad effects. Full-frame disc didn't help either.

  2. I think the whole "dual-role" thing was played differently in the book. My memory of it was that Stark physically LOOKED like Alexis Machine, the badass from his books. That there was no physical resemblance between the two, but Stark had Thad's fingerprints and voice. (I could be remembering this wrong.)

    To my memory, that and casting Julie Harris for a role meant for a man were the only two big deviations. Everything else is close to the book.

    Whenever I revisit this one, I'm struck by two things: Chris Young's amazing score and the really odd, overall tone that never quite balances out.

    It's one of those situations where the premise is too far out/fantastical to sustain the rustic/down-home vibe Romero wants the movie to have. He wants the characters and the world they inhabit to feel very real and lived-in, but the George Stark scenario is too outlandish and never meshes. The "real life" of the successful writer forced to kill off his cash-cow pseudonym feels like one movie, while the supernatural being on a murder spree feels like another.

    I felt like King kept on grappling with this same idea and ended up writing and publishing a couple of different versions of it. MISERY and SECRET WINDOW, SECRET GARDEN specifically.

  3. The novel is about 87 times better than the movie. The movie IS pretty faithful, but I always felt that the pacing was way too fast. And the novel ends on a more somber note, which I like, because it's realistic.

    Previous poster is correct. Thad and Stark did not physically resemble each other at all (in the book). In fact, I think Stark had blonde hair.

  4. i always had a soft spot for this movie. i think coz my dad rewound the tumor scene like 7 times when we watched it, back when it first came out. thanks for being so gruesome, dad!

  5. Great Christopher Young score, though.


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